The one thing that stands out from the National Hunt season thus far is what an outstanding crop last years novice chasers were; performance after performance and breathtaking wins for the new bloods stepping up.It all started with For Non Stop’s runaway win in the Old Roan Chase at Aintree. A horse who has run very well fresh previously; he demolished a good field. When he came out again he was unable to step up on when 3rd behind Captain Chris in the Amlin Chase at Ascot. He will still be of major interest after an absence should he return to the track after Christmas.
Cue Card found only subsequent Champions Sprinter Sacre and Bobs Worth too good in a good novice campaign and he returned this season with an emphatic romp in the Haldon Gold Cup at Exeter, beating the field by 26 lengths with a fine round of jumping. The 2nd and 4th have since boosted the form; Edgardo Sol 2nd again well handicapped Lyvius at Newbury over hurdles and Renard 3rd to a thrown in Ulck Du Lin at the same track. Cue Card is a fascinating runner in the King George and should he do well there. Who is to say he won’t be a contender in the Gold Cup come March?
Al Ferof won the first big race of the season when taking the Paddy Power at Cheltenham off 159; a 1lb higher rating than that of Long Run who failed to win the race in 2010 but went on to win the King George and Gold Cup. The form of this season’s Paddy Power is very credible as he beat his closest rival Walkon comfortably giving 16lbs. The front 2 pulled well clear of the 3rd and it was quite a test as Hunt Ball and Grand Crus were both pulled up. Walkon once again was a good second to another Paul Nicholls horse, Unioniste back at Cheltenham in the Paul Stewart Ironspine Charity Challenge Gold Cup. Al Ferof has always looked like further might suit but was trained as a 2 miler last season. Ruby Walsh mentioned him as an ideal type for the King George last season and lets not forget the way he stormed up the hill in the Supreme Novices Hurdle having looked beaten and somewhat onepaced 3 out. There seems to be very little between Al Ferof and Cue Card and their meeting in the King George is a Christmas treat to look forward to.
Silviniaco Conti has leapt into contention for the Cheltenham Gold Cup 2013 with his victories in the Charlie Hall at Wetherby and the Betfair Chase at Haydock. He was a smooth victor at Wetherby and his subsequent win over Long Run at Haydock is the one that propelled him to the forefront of the Gold Cup market. I don’t think Long Run is the superstar he looked like when he won the Gold Cup,where he was the younger horse getting the better of some older rivals who’s best days were behind them. Since that Gold Cup win Long Run has managed only 1 win at Newbury and was comfortably beaten by Kauto Star twice last season. Perhaps the Gold Cup win
left its mark as he has not been the same since and I am willing to take him on for the rest of the season; his odds for the King George look very short.
Bobs Worth returned to the track with a great win in the Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury. He’s not a flashy type and will never win races emphatically but when the chips are down he gets the job done. I really like the way he does this plus he confirmed RSA Chase form with First Lieutenant on worse terms and held the rejuvenated Tidal Bay. Much talk after the race was of how Tidal Bay maybe would have won on better terms but I don’t view like that. Bobs Worth just gets the job done. Now unbeaten left handed he is also unbeaten round Cheltenham where he had already beaten subsequent Champion Hurdler Rock On Ruby in his Novice Hurdle days. He also beat Cue Card by the narrowest of margins at Newbury last year in receipt of 7lb so should these 2 meet again that would be a mouthwatering clash. He heads the Gold Cup market at around the 5/1 mark and heads to Cheltenham for the Argento Chase in January. Will he repeat the achievements of Looks Like Trouble who won the RSA Chase, Argento and Gold Cup? I think he will.
Wayward Prince also looks set to line up in the Argento and having been out in the wilderness after a top novice campaign he came back with a mighty effort to finish 2nd to Silviniaco Conti in the Charlie Hall. He followed that up with a victory at Aintree. What a star Hello Bud is! 14 years of age and previously a winner of the Becher Chase and some fine Grand National runs under his belt, he turned back the clock to win the Becher Chase again. A great victory for all concerned at Nigel Twiston-Davies yard. He’s now been retired after his distinguished career. The interesting one in this race for me, with one eye on the Grand National was Join Together. Having looked onepaced at the final 2 fences, he came flying at Hello Bud after the elbow and went down by a neck. He seemed to take well to these fences and didn’t make any mistakes of note.
It was great to see Little Josh back over these fences winning the Grand Sefton, where he ground down Gansey in the last 250 yards, with both paddling as they approached the line. I am looking forward to seeing Little Josh jump the National fences again.
Sprinter Sacre did what I expected on his seasonal reappearance in the Tingle Creek at Sandown. Paul Nicholls talked up Sanctuaire which raised a few doubts beforehand but I think his comments may have been over the top. Sanctuaire is a good horse but quotes from Nicholls of him possibly being the best 2m chaser he’s had were probably an attempt to psych out the opposition. His win in the Celebration Chase last year was visually amazing but lacked substance. He was handed a big advantage and beat horses who’d had a long season. Sprinter Sacre well and truly put him in his place at Sandown and with the Arkle form working out so well it looks likely that he will treat most of the rivals he faces this season with the same contempt; he looks a banker for the Queen Mother.
The John Durkan Chase at Punchestown was the first chance we had to see Sir Des Champs this season and it was billed as a duel between him and the great Flemenstar. It was a joy to watch the way Flemenstar jumped exuberantly round at the head of affairs and he got Sir Des Champs off the bridle 3 out. He won well but had a fitness edge having had a run under his belt when wiping aside previous Champion Chaser Big Zeb. The 2m4 1/2f trip looked his optimum although that said we don’t really know whether the step up to 3m+ will be convenient or inconvenient. We already know that Sir Des Champs will be much better over further, but can he reduce or even reverse the defecit with Flemenstar? This is open to debate. I can’t get the way he smoothly won last years Jewson out of my head, and he will be going for his 3rd successive Cheltenham Festival win should he line up in March.
The novices this year seem to be a bit slower to come to hand than usual. Dynaste has put himself firmly in the picture for Festival honours but questions have now been raised as to what his ideal trip might be. I’d suggest he lacks the speed for an Arkle but the Jewson could be an alternative to the RSA Chase. He briefly looked like he had the great Big Bucks in trouble last year at Cheltenham in the Cleeve Hurdle and he ambled round the back before he picked up Fingal Bay – now out of the season following his antics at Exeter – at Cheltenham in November.
Arvika Ligeonniere was an impressive all the way winner of the Drinmore and looks set to be aimed at the Arkle. Captain Conan has won at Cheltenham and then took the Henry VII at Sandown. It will be interesting to see how the Henderson team campaign him as Simonsig could be waiting in the wings. Captain Conan looks a chaser all over, a big beautiful horse who will eat fences for breakfast. Oscars Well remains Ireland’s leading 2m novice chaser and his hurdling form is up there with the best. He’ll be more effective on better ground and has a huge chance in the Arkle (agreed! – JP).
Ulck Du Lin landed a gamble at Newbury and looks a good long term Grand Annual type if they can escape a hammering from the handicapper.
I’ll be looking at the hurdlers in a future articles but two that have caught my eye are Hadrians Approach and Champagne Fever.
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